I was six years old, all I was young, somewhere close to six all pop knots and missing teeth when I would climb into the old wooden pulpit in the sanctuary and snag the pasty little squares I called “manna” that were served during Holy Communion.
As small and mischievous as I was, that old pulpit felt like home, it was big and tall and strong and even though those tiny flat squares didn’t have my name on them, I knew they were mine for the taking. So, I dined, often as I liked, as long as the grown-ups lingered downstairs eating pie and drinking black coffee, on the manna of heaven, God’s gift for God’s people.
I’m not sure I had ever heard anyone refer to the bread of Communion as manna, but somehow in my young mind, I was making a connection between the feast of Jesus and the provision of God. From that day until this, I have always understood the Table of Jesus to be a mystical and physical reality of sustenance, a sacrament when we take in the nourishment God has provided.
Consider my elation then, when I learned of a new discovery at the John Ryland’s Research Institute at Manchester; an early Christian inscription concerning the Eucharist as “manna from heaven.” The papyrus first discovered by Dr. Roberta Mazza, a research fellow at the institute, dates to 600 CE and the era of late antiquity, some 300 years after Constantine. They papyrus was a charm written to be worn in an Egyptian style amulet, the holy inscription meant to protect its owner from evil.
Along with the words describing the Eucharist as manna, the papyrus also contains bible passages including Psalm 78:23-24, Matthew 26:28-30, and others. Dr. Mazza notes that several of the words are misspelled and written out of order which seems to suggest these words were written from memory rather than being copied. This is striking because it is an instance of Scripture being used by common folk not just priests or religious elite. Mazza also finds the papyrus for the amulet to be an indication of how Christianity was understood as magic to ward off evil.
The full text of the papyrus:
“Fear you all who rule over the earth.
Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.
For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies.
Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.”
The papyrus is a confirmation that some early Christians in Egypt had access to or at least took to heart the sacred words of Scripture, long before they had hand held copies translated to their own language and offered in their own vernacular. Again it affirms the centrality of the Table for early believers and the body and blood of Jesus as a continuation of the covenantal and sacrificial work of God in the history of the world.
May the words of our story and God’s presence with us reach across the ages and give us strength and may the power of the Table unite us with those who have gone before, those who walk with us now and to the one who will come again.